Iga Swiatek and a fresh tussle at the top in women’s tennis
Poland’s 2020 French Open champion has risen to world No 1 since Ash Barty quit the game, but her stay on the rankings peak will face a stern test this season
After being officially anointed as the world’s top-ranked women’s singles tennis player a week ago, Iga Swiatek posted photos of her unwinding on a Miami beach to reflect on the “interesting, crazy” last few weeks. “One day I'm just 100% focused on my performance during another match and the next day I'm realising how to live as number 1,” she wrote.
As is the consensus among players “to live” as the world No 1 is a lot harder than to get there, which Swiatek did rather quickly and unexpectedly after the sudden retirement of Ash Barty. Women’s tennis has had multiple fresh faces as recent Grand Slam champions, but the No 1 spot has gone pretty much unchallenged over the last couple of years. Since sitting on the throne for the first time in June 2019, the Aussie held fort for 114 consecutive weeks until stepping aside from the sport as the world No 1 last month.
If the newly-crowned Pole can match even to some extent that dominance at the top, she would have done remarkably well. For, there are a bunch of challengers hovering, potentially making the rankings game wide open as the season progresses. Swiatek is currently on 6,711 points while the others in the top five—Barbora Krejcikova, Paula Badosa, Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari –are all between 4,700 and 5,000 points. All it would take is for one of them to get on a bit of a run, and for Swiatek to stumble, to shake up the order.
Swiatek has first-hand experience of that. The 20-year-old surged from world No 8 in mid-February to No 2 in March after winning back-to-back titles in Qatar and Indian Wells. That's when Barty made way for Swiatek, who capped her ascension with the Miami crown. Make no mistake, Swiatek, with a power game that is looking increasingly lethal, is the player to beat at the moment. Even more so heading into the clay swing, where she first announced herself in the big league with the 2020 Roland Garros title, but has not been able to add to the count.
Consistency is the name of the game in women’s tennis, and the youngster from Warsaw is aware of that. “Many women are struggling for consistency and that’s why we have had so many new Grand Slam winners,” said Swiatek in an earlier interview with ITF.
Among the top five in the rankings chart breathing down her neck, Czech Republic’s Krejcikova (ranked 2nd, 4,975 points) and Spain’s Badosa (3rd, 4,885 points) have made significant jumps in the last couple of weeks, moving up two and three spots respectively.
Krejcikova, seen largely as a doubles player before last year, was a surprise 2021 French Open singles champion. The Czech has made two WTA singles finals since then, and enters her favourite leg of the season on the red dirt. However, she will have points to defend in Paris as the Roland Garros winner, and an encore will take some doing.
Badosa was ranked 62nd in the world around this time last year. The 24-year-old has captured three WTA titles, in Serbia (May 2021), Indian Wells (October 2021) and Sydney (January 2022) in the last 12 months, showing the kind of form that she would be eager to carry deeper into the season.
And then there’s Sabalenka (ranked 4th, 4,711 points) and Sakkari (5th, 4,705), two power-packed players who knocked on the doors of Grand Slam glory last year but fall short, losing in the semi-finals twice each. Greek Sakkari beat Swiatek in the 2021 Roland Garros quarter-final before losing to Krejcikova, while Belarus' Sabalenka went down to Karolina Pliskova at the same stage at Wimbledon. Sakkari has been the more in-form player of late, reaching two finals and one semi-final in her last four tournaments. Two of those defeats—in the Indian Wells title clash and in the Qatar Open last four—came against Swiatek.
Incidentally, except against Krejcikova (2-0), Swiatek doesn't have a positive win-loss record against the others. She is 1-1 with Badosa and Sabalenka and 2-3 against Sakkari.
Osaka too in it
Another player with whom the world No 1 has a 1-1 head-to-head record is Naomi Osaka. The Japanese stormed into the final in Miami and lost to Swiatek, but not before showing enough signs of her reignited mojo. With Barty’s exit leaving a void, women’s tennis could not have had a better sight than Osaka fighting on the court with a smile (an occasional tear notwithstanding).
Osaka, who was ranked No 1 in 2019 before Barty took over, is currently 35th. However, the fact that she did not play a lot—and thus not win a lot—after pulling out of last year's Roland Garros to address mental health issues would mean Osaka can potentially pocket considerable points this season and climb the ladder again swiftly.
That’s her plan, anyway, with the eventual goal to reach the summit again. “I think by next year or by the end of this year, I would love to be top 10. By next year, I would love to be the No 1,” she said in Miami.
“Oh, that’s a big statement. Erase that. Top 5,” the four-time Grand Slam champion added in the same breath. “You know what? I'm going to set that goal. Yeah, No 1.”